Peak Oil Anarchy

Peak Oil is indisputable, inevitable and -- probably -- imminent. As the Cheap Oil era ends & oil supplies grow ever more scarce, our consumerist, earth-eating economy will go into convulsions & industrial civilization will teeter on the brink of collapse. Best be prepared! Peak Oil could herald a Golden Age of Anarchy. In Leviathan's ashes, we could create new decentralized communities of mutual aid, solidarity against oppression, & egalitarian harmony. May this be a map to the terrain ahead!

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Some Thoughts on "Peak Oil" as a "Disinformation Campaign"

a well-reasoned rebuttal
by Steven Lagavulin (from deconsumption)

I always hesitate to spend too much time covering the "Peak Oil" issue. For one thing, there are already so many other sites doing so very thoroughly. And for another, there are so many other, more immediate crisis issues which are curiously convening upon the human race at this particular moment in history....However, a reader posted a comment recently which ended in this passing remark regarding the Peak Oil concept that I wanted to respond to more publicly: "It is obvious from this information that indeed the "crisis" is created and you all have apparently fallen for the bait OR are in on the scam and just trying to keep it going."

In this instance, the reader had heard about the huge amounts of oil sands and oil shale deposits thoughout North America, and naturally wondered whether the whole "peak oil" crisis was simply just a load of hooey...
or even possibly a conspiracy being propagated on the public by Big Oil. And in one way or another, this same suspicion has been coming up time and again in many places. So I thought I'd take a moment to simply offer up my own thoughts on this question about "peak oil" as a "disinformation campaign."

First of all, the Peak Oil argument is not new, by any has actually been around for many decades (I somewhat remember a reference to it being posited "in theory" even prior to the turn of the 20th century), but has been steadily gaining a weight of evidence and popular acceptance only recently. If it appears to have suddenly "burst" onto the scene it's due to two principle factors: 1) the "
tipping point" is only now fast being realized, and 2) the rise of the internet has given the public a comprehensive, responsive and uncensored media forum in which to recognize it. The former factor stems from the prevalent human characteristic for ignoring undesireable signs and warnings until they can no longer be ignored. But the latter is, I believe, the key to the whole question....

For 99.9999% of the people now "waking up" to this concept, it is 100% due to public investigation and dissemination of information on the internet. The word "public" here may be misleading, because much of this "public" participation actually includes highly knowledgeable and recognized "experts" in various fields. But in this manner
the case for Peak Oil has been slowly pieced together by a kind of open committee of researchers--some admittedly dubious or ill-informed, but many quite well-informed and highly regarded. This kind of "research by consensus" is probably unique to the advent of the internet, and often submits a new piece of "evidence" to an immediate "trial by fire." And in the past two or three years that I've been aware of the "peak" issue, I've seen how it has actually been a fairly hard-fought battle to build the case toward even the minimal level of acceptance it now has. And as the "awareness" grows, it brings with it greater and greater numbers of skeptics and critics. Which is why people like Matt Simmons and Matt Savinar and James Kunstler have made it into a profession to go over the same material again and again and again....

"Disinformation" or "misinformation" tactics practiced within this type of forum could at best only aim to "muddy the waters" a little bit, but they could not effectively "create" an issue of this scale where none existed. There are simply too many people involved in the "processing."

Also, it's important to remember that the internet as an information and news source is still primarily an elitist medium: it demands a certain degree of experience and savvy, and an active desire to educate oneself. The vast majority of the population does not "get their news" from the internet, and likely never will...and is therefore almost completely unaware of what their future holds.

For these reasons, the internet is hardly the medium of choice for spearheading an effort toward perversely influencing broad public opinion. If there were governmental or corporate agencies interested in this type of tactic, they would most efficiently do so through the more centralized and broad-reaching mainstream media. And in fact, what we typically see is actually the contrary effect: that the issues which "break out" from the free-press that is the internet to the more mainstream media are issues which were
being suppressed from public knowledge. In these cases, the internet serves to build a critical-mass on an individual by individual basis, until the popular media can no longer ignore it (and certain issues are so inflammatory that even this is not sufficient).

Are profits up for oil firms? Yes, they're up monstrously.
But this would have been the case regardless of whether Peak Oil is a "scam" or an immediate reality. And certainly, if you "follow the money" in other ways to see who ultimately profits by all this, you can find a myriad of reasons why, as a colleague of mine remarked once, "if peak oil didn't exist they would have been forced to invent it." But "they" didn't. We did. The concerns over oil depletion were not "leaked", they weren't "rumored", they weren't "reported" or "purported"--they were built from the ground up by dedicated, open-source, volunteer researchers.

Of course, it makes perfect sense that with an issue of this magnitude many people would generally desire a kind of "stamp of approval" by recognized "authorities"...and absent that, it's difficult to believe that the "faceless" internet could be a trustworthy informant. But then when I look into the subject and see the large amount of research contributed by people with recognized knowledge in varying fields and backgrounds, and when I see that these people have so little to gain (but perhaps a bit of fleeting "cyberfame"), I begin to realize that it more rightly becomes a question of asking:
Why is it that our "authorities" continue to ignore these concerns?

But then, of course, if "they" did address the issue...if a President's Council on Peak Oil was assembled, or if mandatory Reserve Accounting Report filings were demanded from the large U.S. oil firms...
could any benefit possibly come as a result of "giving the issue over to them"? Or would this simply filibuster the issue permanently and completely, thereby destroying any chance that we, the individual members of American society, might make the vital decisions and begin adopting the pivotal changes that the mere "concept" of Peak Oil is asking of us?

I'm certainly not the first person to point out that, if the peak moment of the Oil Age does not come--and come very, very soon--then the planet itself will ultimately collapse under the burden of "Peak Human Progress."


  • At 8:25 AM, Blogger blogagog said…

    You are worrying too much about something that happens quite often in the oil industry. It would be incorrect to think that oil production will have a bell curve shape. It is actually a number of bell curves added together.

    First, there was the production of oil in Pennsylvania in the 1800's. It was lying in pools at ground level or slightly below the surface, and was scooped out. That type of production had a bell curved shape, and we are waaaaaay past the "peak oil" point (the top of the curve).

    Next was the discovery of oil in salt domes... another bell curve added to the mix. Each individual well adds a mini bell curve (though flattened significantly on the left side). Then came the middle east, then the North Sea, gulf coast, alaska, siberia, it goes on and on.

    And each new find or production method adds another bell to the overall production curve. The final shape of the curve is a very bumpy, mostly flat line that is heavily influenced by current demand.

    Next will be the oil shale, then liquification of coal, when the price goes up enough. These will both have gigantic curves, as there is more recoverable energy available in these than all the oil ever found as well as the stuff we know is still in the ground.

    The last resort will be biodeisel (or coal liquification, they are both pretty inefficient). Biodeisel will be available for the next 5 billion years or so. There's really nothing to worry about here.

    You are incorrect when you say that the people preaching fear about this have little to gain. Whole careers can be made by making the situation look worse than it is. Tremendous amounts of government grants and private funding completely depend on the doom and gloom scenario that we are about to run out of energy.

    When my father went to college in the 50's (ChemEng), they told him there would be no oil left in 1981. When I went to college in '87 (ChemEng), I was told we would run out in 2004. I put less trust in statements like that now, since the internet gives all of us enough information to research the subject ourselves.

    Unfortunately, the internet has created a new kind of "research" formerly only used by journalists. Forming your opinion based on other people's opinions seen on the web is NOT research. Too many people don't realize this.

  • At 9:04 AM, Blogger FARfetched said…

    There are several problems with the rosy scenario, as much as I'd like it to pan out as you say.

    First, we've already reached the point where demand is outstripping supply. Even if production continues to climb, demand is climbing faster — so even without peak oil, we're about to see long-term shortages that will affect the economy (and perhaps all of civilization) the same way as peak oil would.

    Next, the "replacements" you mention — oil shale, coal liquification, and biodiesel — require large energy inputs compared to crude oil. If I remember correctly, in the case of biodiesel, it actually takes more energy to produce than what you get out of it. That's fine as long as you're scavenging biodiesel from leftover frying oil, but as a primary fuel source it loses. As for the others, the low positive energy return means you'll be pouring most of the output back into the process, reducing the effective energy output to a relative trickle.

    Having said that, I don't think we're in for Mad Max by 2008 or anything, but people who aren't willing or able to adjust to the new reality are going to have major problems.

  • At 1:49 PM, Blogger blogagog said…

    We will likely have some small shortages when demand outstrips the supply of oil from oil wells in a decade or so (supply is capped by producers, not by capacity right now. It's close, but not as close as you hear). Nothing like the crunch in '73 though. The price of gasoline will go up enough that the shale will begin to be mined.

    Valero refining is already capable of refining the shale oil (any heavy oil refiner can do it really). All that is needed is the rock crushing/rendering plant. It will be put up quick when the price is right. The energy required to process the shale with our current technology is 40%, meaning if you put in 100 barrels of oil, you will get out 60 barrels of gasoline/deisel/etc. As there are 1 trillion barrels proven in Wyomin, and 1.6(?) trillion in Alberta, 60% of that is a very large number.

    Biodeisel from soybean is indeed inefficient. It is estimated that it takes 3% more energy to make than you get back from it! But there are other methods, such as algae farms next to wastewater treatment plants that show promise. I have no doubt that before the shale runs out, they will have the bugs worked out. Heck, they will probably have fusion worked out by then.

    I agree with you that available energy, mostly in the form of oil will have a large effect on the economy. But I think that will be the force that drives us to find the solution, not the spectre of possible future problems.

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